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Cross-Cultural Names: German American girls

What works in Boston and Berlin?

a Name Sage post by: Abby View all Name Sage posts

Cross-cultural names: Naming across languages means extra challenges – and more choices, too! Let’s help this family find the right cross-cultural name for their German-American daughter.

Anna writes:

My husband and I are at an impasse for deciding on a name for our baby girl due end of November and would welcome advice. My husband is German so the name has to work in both languages. We don’t want anything too popular (at least in the US), bot not too obscure. It can’t start with an S because initials would be SS.

Our son is Oskar, with the German spelling. I like that it is simple, strong and clear without too many options for nicknames. Our favorites are:

  • Clara
  • Lena
  • Louisa
  • Matilda
  • Miriam
  • Nina

I’m slightly concerned about pronunciation of some of these names and wouldn’t want her to be correcting people her whole life. We’d pronounce Clara with a long ‘a’ like Clahra, and Lena to rhyme with Elena.

Thanks for your help!

The Name Sage replies:

Naming across languages – even languages as similar as German and English – can be tricky. You’ve got a great list of names that could work, but here’s the question I think you’ll need to answer:

Do you want a name that works in English and German? Or one that is nearly identical in both languages? Because there’s definitely a difference.

Oskar fits into the latter category. Accents vary. Spelling, too. But Oskar is Oskar is Oskar.

If you prefer to go the nearly-identical route – and it sounds like that’s your comfort zone – it means saying good-bye to Clara and Lena. Can you insist on clahr-ah and lay-nah? Sure. But it requires effort. How will you feel if your daughter decides she prefers the American sound better?

Louisa, Matilda, Miriam, and Nina all sound much more similar in both languages. I wonder if you’d also like:

Elena – We typically pronounce Lena with a long ‘e’ sound in the US, but Elena? That’s more like Elaine. Would Elena appeal? It might not sound especially German, but it’s quite popular across Europe right now. Of course, it also ranks in the US Top 100, at Number 66, so perhaps that rules it out.

Lara – Just like the Elena/Lena puzzle, Lara can sound more like the German pronunciation of Clara. As a bonus, it’s familiar across Europe and relatively uncommon in the US, without being difficult to say or spell.

Lilly – American parents favor Lily over Lilly, while Germans opt for the double L. Since you’re used to saying Oskar-with-a-k, I assume you won’t mind introducing your daughter as Lilly-with-two-Ls. The downside: it’s quite popular in the US, with Lily at Number 31, and Lillian not far behind.

Marta – It’s a mystery to me why we don’t hear more of Marta in the US. (Martha, too.) But it remains rare, even though we all recognize the name. It’s short, simple, nickname-proof, and ever-so-slightly olde world.

Mila – The downside: it’s racing up US popularity charts, just like Mia and Maya not so long ago. And yet, it’s identical across both languages, and sounds great as a sister for Oskar. Still, at #14, maybe popularity is a deal-breaker.

Nora – Nora feels as classic as Clara, but it crosses the language barrier with a little more ease. And while it’s been a long-time Top 100 name in the US, it doesn’t seem trendy or fleeting.

Tessa – Tessa comes from Theresa, a traditional name still going strong in Germany. In the US, Tessa ranks Number 245. That might mark the sweet spot between familiar and too-popular. Plus, it sounds exactly the same in both languages.

Overall, my favorites are Marta from my list, and Louisa from yours. They sound like sisters for Oskar – traditional, vaguely European, but familiar in the US without being too common.

And yet, if you’re willing to overlook popularity concerns, I think Mila could make a stunning choice. It’s short, complete, and works in English and German beautifully. Your daughter might not be the only Mila in your circles of family and friends in either country, but the name’s appeal could outweigh the occasional repetition.

Now, my question to readers: when choosing names that need to work in two languages, do you favor names that change as little as possible? Or will you consider names that differ quite a bit?

Abby Sandel is the creator of name blog Appellation Mountain and writes Nameberry’s Name Sage column, offering wise advice on baby name questions submitted by Berries every other Wednesday.  Abby lives outside of Washington DC with her husband and two children, Alex and Clio. You can reach her on Facebook , Instagram and Pinterest. For a chance to have your

If a chld's name needs to work it two lanugages, should it ...

  1. A... be as close to identical as possible in both languages. (Spelling, pronunciation, etc.)
  2. B... change pronunciation, spelling, etc. as necessary in both languages, as long as it's still similar.
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Abby

Abby Sandel is nameberry's Senior Editor and resident Name Sage. Look for her baby name news round-ups every Monday, and her Name Sage columns on Wednesdays. Abby is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and mom to Alex and Clio. For a chance to have your questions answered, contact Abby at namesage@nameberry.com.
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21 Responses to “Cross-Cultural Names: German American girls”

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CarolAnn Says:

September 3rd, 2019 at 11:50 pm

We’re in a similar situation with bridging two languages, and definitely prefer names that are pronounced the same in both languages. Since we live in Europe, though, that’s even more important for us. If you’re traveling back and forth and have family speaking both languages, I’d definitely go with a name with one common pronunciation. Some suggestions:
Ingrid
Greta
Helen
Marion
Nella
Annika (Oskar and Annika would be great!)

Mrs_B_King Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 1:25 am

As a native German I must say: Lara & Nora are very different pronounced in German & English. But I am so happy to see some German names because I am having a girl in January and can’t find a name. Nora is on my list. The other names are way to popular for my taste.

Wish you good luck, Anna!

Jorja Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 1:44 am

I love Marta! Ever since watching The Sound of Music as a child it’s been a favourite of mine. Other suggestions are:

Elke/Elka
Hilda/Hildie
Alva
Sofia
Frida
Greta
Pia

SheaJohannaRose Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 6:53 am

I love Greta.

ThaliaMenninger Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 7:54 am

One thought on why Marta might not be popular. I have a friend from Colombia whose name is Marta, yet she chooses to go by her middle name. In her opinion, English speakers tend to soften the T into a D in a way she doesn’t like the sound of. And honestly, that is the way I say it myself–somewhere between a T and a D. I have to make a conscious effort to really enunciate that T. Maybe it’s a name that looks better on paper than it sounds spoken aloud? By English speakers, anyway?

niteowl13 Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 9:48 am

I love the suggestion of Lara.
You might like Clarissa or Magda.

RaeRae4 Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 10:37 am

My husband and I had a similar situation. He is from the Netherlands and we needed a name that worked in both languages. We went with Iris. He uses the Dutch pronunciation when he speaks to her. We could not agree on a traditional Ditch name that still sounded good in English, so that was our compromise.

kpearl8 Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 11:30 am

As the previous comments show, it is nearly impossible to find a name that will be pronounced exactly the same in two different languages. Its difficult to find names that are pronounced exactly the same even between dialects/accents of the same language! We all are conditioned to hear the phonology that is natural to our native languages and we often can’t even distinguish phonetic differences that are clear and obvious to speakers of other languages. Something that an American thinks sounds “the same” as it does in German or another language may actually be quite different. That’s why I voted for the B option- you will always have to compromise, so it’s better to just accept that there will be differences- at least at some level. That said, I do really like Marta! I have a soft spot for Martha, and Marta makes it sound more spunky and continental while preserving the meaning and history behind the name (at least to my American sensibilities 🙂

rosemilk Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 1:24 pm

I am a Canadian living in Germany, and I had a similar challenge when I was pregnant. I ended up having a boy, but did research a lot of girls names before finding out the sex! There are lots of good suggestions above. One thing I would warn about is that many German names that sound fresh in English are middle-age/old-lady names in Germany (eg. Sabine, Iris, Ingrid).

These names are all current in Germany and would be good choices:
Lena
Elena
Mila

And also current but fitting the old-fashioned classic comeback feel of Oskar:
Clara (my favourite)
Greta

bw Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 2:56 pm

I absolutely love the suggestion of Marta!

Vespertine Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 4:16 pm

Love Lara but omg people, in the US at least, can’t seem to say it right! I know a Lara and I swear every time she introduces herself she says “lah-ruh” and people go “laura???” and then continue to call her Laura forever.

Gabriellenz Says:

September 4th, 2019 at 5:48 pm

I really love Nina! I think your original list was pretty good! Louisa would be my second choice 🙂

LuMary Says:

September 5th, 2019 at 1:03 pm

If you want something recognizably German, yet familiar in the States:

Heidi
Liesl (can call her any of the Elizabeth/Elisabeth nicknames. I’ve even seen Lottie as a diminutive for Elizabeth.)
Gretel
Gretchen

I also like Ilse (can call her Elsie), Margareta (I like the vintage Margaret nicknames: Maggie, Meg, Maisie, Daisy, etc.)
I love Louisa.
Linnea is a pretty European name, though Swedish in origin.
Emma is overdone, in my opinion, but certainly bicultural with German roots.

LuMary Says:

September 5th, 2019 at 1:06 pm

Marta is pretty. I’d be tempted to call her the vintage Mattie. A vintage nickname Americanizes a name, too.

TDFM Says:

September 5th, 2019 at 6:42 pm

Matilda is beautiful and works so well with Oskar! And it isn’t yet popular in the US (I’m in Australia and considered it for my daughter but ultimately vetoed it because of its popularity). Clara is also beautiful but unfortunately being in America you’ll have troubles with the way it’s pronounced there.

Bobcat108 Says:

September 6th, 2019 at 11:25 pm

I know an early-20s woman named Clara whose mom is German. She pronounces her name the way I do in “American”—Claaa-ruh rather than Clah-ruh, but says that her German family all use the Clah-ruh pronunciation. A pronunciation for Clara I’ve seen people refer to here is Claire-uh; I haven’t heard this IRL so am not sure if this is something new for baby Claras or if this pronunciation isn’t used in my area of the States (upstate New York).

Something that jumped out at me right away: would you consider Klara? Oskar & Klara? They’d have that subtle connection of the letter K in them.

I also wondered whether Luisa would appeal to you…Oskar & Luisa? or Luise?

Whatever you choose, best of luck!

MontessoriMeg Says:

September 8th, 2019 at 7:37 pm

We were in a similar situation with Swedish-English. If we’d had a girl, we had decided on Miriam. We also had Nina on our list, Louisa as a potential middle, and Matilda as a favorite but taken by close friends. Other names I think could work:

Antonia (Nina would work well as a nickname)
Agnes
Linnea
Ebba

I think Miriam or NIna are the best options for pronunciation and “feel” in terms of expectations of age, etc.

MontessoriMeg Says:

September 8th, 2019 at 7:40 pm

Two more options I think could work:

Vera
Esther

Sweetchariot Says:

September 9th, 2019 at 10:17 am

I suggest Amalia. According to Forvo, the German pronunciation is quite similar to the US and it has quite the pan European flair. You might encounter a few folks who think Amelia, but in general it’s so distinctive and linked more to the Molly sound that people will remember. In fact, Mali/Molly makes an adorable nickname. Oskar and Amalia, Oskar and his baby sister Mali.

Kjh446 Says:

September 9th, 2019 at 12:45 pm

I like Louisa and Nina for you, both beautiful international names. I would also consider using Klara with a K. Love the suggestion of Amalia.

I think the below suggestions would work in both german and english:

Oskar & Alice/ Elise
Oskar & Lily
Oskar & Ottilie
Oskar & Odelia
Oskar & Emilia
Oskar & Leah
Oskar & Fredrika
Oskar & Emmie
Oskar & Evelina
Oskar & Leonore

KieraTaylor Says:

September 20th, 2019 at 6:46 pm

If it helps, having a name with a slightly different pronunciation across languages might not be a bad thing. My (first) name is Sarah, and I’m American but I have several European friends and I love that my name sounds different in a German and Russian accent–it sounds like “Zah-rah” and I like it better than the flat “ay” sounds in an American accent. Your kiddo may end up enjoying having a slightly different name depending on which part of the family she’s with.

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